Displays today are an important part of our lives, from the good old analogue days of yesterday we are today surrounded by digital displays be it on our smartphones, laptops, watches, vehicles, cameras and even our home appliances.

Displays have over the years evolved from the spherical looking CRT televisions to the sleek and slim LCD’s and LED’s of today. So in the quest for finding the best display let us get into the world of display standards and specifications. The topic for this time is Resolution and Aspect ratio, the two most basic aspects of a display.
 

Resolution

Resolution is the first thing that pops in our minds (and out of the brochure) when we talk about displays. Resolution is the number of distinct pixels in each dimension that can be displayed. Resolution is something that has set standards but there are times when manufacturers take some liberties to achieve a different experience.

While resolutions can vary depending on the format which we are using here are some of the most common resolutions in use today along with variations of popular ones.

A chart to explain common display resolutions

The table above shows just a few of the more popular resolutions used today along with the devices that use them. Also, the reason why we showed the Megapixels is just to show how much data the increase in resolution has. This also shows how much processing is required for something like 4K or 8K playback. Bottom line is more the pixels (and resolution), sharper the image.

That being said the picture quality of a display depends on other factors too and you cannot just think a high-resolution picture will be a better quality one. When we tested LED TV’s we found the Mi TV 4A with HD resolution gave much better brightness, colours and viewing angles than the Vu TV with Full HD resolution.

Moving on, the resolutions are standard across the devices that record the data (camera), the device that streams it (computer, DTH) and the device used to view it (monitor, smartphone). But not always do we utilize most of the resolutions that are streamed. Take televisions, for example, you can have a 4K television but using just an HD DTH connection and you are really not going to enjoy the benefits of the higher resolution.

Similarly, you can have a video shot in 8K but then downscaled to Full HD to make it easier to consume and stream to a Full HD display.

Smartphones, on the other hand, may not be able to enjoy the full experience due to many issues from incapable processors to not having the right certification to playback HD videos- Poco F1 and most other mid-range devices lack Widevine L1 certification that is needed to playback Netflix and Amazon Prime in HD.

While 4K is the next big thing in displays, not a lot of people had jumped on the 4K bandwagon due to the lack of content. But slowly the devices are getting more and more affordable like the Mi TV 4 and streaming sites like Amazon Prime, Youtube and Netflix are making more 4K ready content.

While we haven't seen many 4K smartphones, except for maybe a Sony one, a whole lot of mid-range smartphones can actually record and playback 4K video. Take the Asus Zenfone Max Pro M2, which records not just regular UHD 4K, but also the much wider DCI 4K.

The image below shows some more common and uncommon resolutions in use today. The uncommon resolutions come into the picture where hardware manufacturers have a unique take on devices.

Display Resolutions: Explained

Resolution chart (Source: Wikipedia)

Take the iPhones as an example, currently, Apple launched the iPhone XR, XS and the XS Max in the market. Because, these smartphones were the first to use the notch and head into the direction of bezel-less displays, Apple had to use much taller displays and hence they needed to use a different resolution.

That combined with the size and price differences between the three smartphones has given rise to three separate resolutions 1242 x 2688 pixels (XS Max), 1125 x 2436 pixels (XS) and 828 x 1792 pixels (XR).

This sheer number of variety when it comes to resolutions is why some resolution go unnamed or are simply labelled with a “+” mark or a “Wide/ Ultra Wide” moniker. Take Full HD as an example, it can have multiple variations like Wide, Ultra-Wide, Tall, FHD+ etc.

After Resolution, the next most important standard when it comes to displays is Aspect ratio.


Aspect Ratio

While talking about the iPhones we talked about them being taller than before, the “tall” here refers to Aspect Ratio. Aspect Ratio is the proportional relationship between a displays width and its height and is represented as x:y, Eg: 16:9 or 2.35:1. When you represent aspect ratio the units don’t matter (Duh! its a ratio after all). You can measure the height of the display to its width in inches, centimetres or even pixels and you will get the aspect ratio.

Three of the most common aspect ratios are 4:3, 16:9 and 21:9. These three ratios have been used for a long time across platforms.

The 4:3 or Four-by-Three ratio has been in use pretty much since cameras could record moving pictures. It was the dominant format on television, movies and even phones (remember the old phones with keypads?).

With the newer generation of HD televisions, the much wider 16:9 format came into existence. This allowed for more content over the 4:3 format to be displayed and has till now remain the de-facto aspect ratio used by televisions, monitors, laptops and smartphones.

21:9 is another popular format that has been in existence for quite some time. 21:9 or 2.35:1 is often called the Anamorphic format and is primarily used in movie theatres (except IMAX which uses a 1.9:1 aspect ratio) and allows for an ultra-wide field of view. That being said directors do use play around with aspect ratios like Wes Anderson in the movie, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” shifts from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1 (21:9) to 1.37:1 depending on the time period within the story.

TV and Content Aspect Ration Explained

TV Aspect Ratio vs Content Aspect Ratio (Source: Rtings)

But as of 2018, Aspect Ratios are all over the places with smartphones now moving to bezel-less displays, the older 16:9 simply isn’t possible to be used with modern phones. Hence, we have much taller 18:9, 18.5:9, 19:9 and 19:9 aspect ratio displays with more in the pipeline.

Frankly, the direction it is going to looks like 21:9 displays won’t be too far on phones. In fact, Acer did launch a 21:9 aspect ration display phone, the Acer Iconia Smart way back in 2011 and if rumours are true Sony will be launching their next XZ4 with the same aspect ratio soon.

Talking of getting out of hand, laptops are where we will see even more changes from the much-loved and movie-friendly 16:9 making way to the far more productive 3:2 aspect ratio as seem on the new Microsoft Surface Book and Google’s Pixel Slate.

3:2 displays are more suited for the internet as they are much taller allowing more content from a webpage to be displayed. It also removes the white/ black borders at the sides when watching a webpage thus making it the future for laptops.

Listed below are a few of the more common aspect ratios in use today.

Aspect Ratio used by different kinds of Content

As we can see from the table, the sheer number of aspect ratios in use today, but unlike resolution picking one aspect ratio over the other is up to the user and their use cases. A 16:9 or 16:10 display makes sense for movies on the move while doing the same on a 3:2 will lead to letterboxing.

If you out in the market for your next smartphone or television make sure you keep our Resolutions and Aspect Ratios tables handy to help you decide what's best for you. Also, keep watching this space for more articles on standards and specifications.